1 Objective and subjective research perspectives
Research in social science requires the collection of data in order to understand a phenomenon. This can be done in a number of ways, and will depend on the state of existing knowledge of the topic area. The researcher can:
- Explore a little known issue. The researcher has an idea or has observed something and seeks to understand more about it (exploratory research).
- Connect ideas to understand the relationships between the different aspects of an issue, i.e. explain what is going on (explanatory research).
- Describe what is happening in more detail and expand the initial understanding (explicatory or descriptive research).
Exploratory research is often done through observation and other methods such as interviews or surveys that allow the researcher to gather preliminary information.
Explanatory research, on the other hand, generally tests hypotheses about cause and effect relationships. Hypotheses are statements developed by the researcher that will be tested during the research. The distinction between exploratory and explanatory research is linked to the distinction between inductive and deductive research. Explanatory research tends to be deductive and exploratory research tends to be inductive. This is not always the case but, for simplicity, we shall not explore the exceptions here.
Descriptive research may support an explanatory or exploratory study. On its own, descriptive research is not sufficient for an academic project. Academic research is aimed at progressing current knowledge.
The perspective taken by the researcher also depends on whether the researcher believes that there is an objective world out there that can be objectively known; for example, profit can be viewed as an objective measure of business performance. Alternatively the researcher may believe that concepts such as ‘culture’, ‘motivation’, ‘leadership’, ‘performance’ result from human categorisation of the world and that their ‘meaning’ can change depending on the circumstances. For example, performance can mean different things to different people. For one it may refer to a hard measure such as levels of sales. For another it may include good relationships with customers. According to this latter view, a researcher can only take a subjective perspective because the nature of these concepts is the result of human processes. Subjective research generally refers to the subjective experiences of research participants and to the fact that the researcher’s perspective is embedded within the research process, rather than seen as fully detached from it.
On the other hand, objective research claims to describe a true and correct reality, which is independent of those involved in the research process. Although this is a simplified view of the way in which research can be approached, it is an important distinction to think about. Whether you think about your research topic in objective or subjective terms will determine the development of the research questions, the type of data collected, the methods of data collection and analysis you adopt and the conclusions that you draw. This is why it is important to consider your own perspective when planning your project.
Subjective research is generally referred to as phenomenological research. This is because it is concerned with the study of experiences from the perspective of an individual, and emphasises the importance of personal perspectives and interpretations. Subjective research is generally based on data derived from observations of events as they take place or from unstructured or semi-structured interviews. In unstructured interviews the questions emerged from the discussion between the interviewer and the interviewee. In semi-structured interviews the interviewer prepares an outline of the interview topics or general questions, adding more as needs emerged during the interview. Structured interviews include the full list of questions. Interviewers do not deviate from this list. Subjective research can also be based on examinations of documents. The researcher will attribute personal interpretations of the experiences and phenomena during the process of both collecting and analysing data. This approach is also referred to as interpretivist research. Interpretivists believe that in order to understand and explain specific management and HR situations, one needs to focus on the viewpoints, experiences, feelings and interpretations of the people involved in the specific situation.
Conversely, objective research tends to be modelled on the methods of the natural sciences such as experiments or large scale surveys. Objective research seeks to establish law-like generalisations which can be applied to the same phenomenon in different contexts. This perspective, which privileges objectivity, is called positivism and is based on data that can be subject to statistical analysis and generalisation. Positivist researchers use quantitative methodologies, which are based on measurement and numbers, to collect and analyse data. Interpretivists are more concerned with language and other forms of qualitative data, which are based on words or images. Having said that, researchers using objectivist and positivist assumptions sometimes use qualitative data while interpretivists sometimes use quantitative data. (Quantitative and qualitative methodologies will be discussed in more detail in the final part of this course.) The key is to understand the perspective you intend to adopt and realise the limitations and opportunities it offers. Table 1 compares and contrasts the perspectives of positivism and interpretivism.
Table 1 Positivism vs interpretivism
|Positivism (objective)||Interpretivism (subjective)|
|Regards the world as objectively ‘out there’, real and completely separate from human meaning-making.||Claims that the only world we can study is a world of meanings, represented in the signs and symbols that people use to think and to communicate.|
|Asserts there is only one true, objective knowledge that transcends time and cultural location.||Accepts that there are multiple knowledges, and that knowledge is highly contingent on time and cultural location.|
|Views knowledge as based on facts that are ‘out there in the world’ waiting to be discovered.||Views knowledge as constructed through people’s meaning-making.|
|Asks of knowledge:|
Asks of knowledge:
Some textbooks include the realist perspective or discuss constructivism, but, for the purpose of your work-based project, you do not need to engage with these other perspectives. This course keeps the discussion of research perspectives to a basic level.
Search and identify two articles that are based on your research topic. Ideally you may want to identify one article based on quantitative and one based on qualitative methodologies.
Now answer the following questions:
- In what ways are the two studies different (excluding the research focus)?
- Which research perspective do the author/s in article 1 take in their study (i.e. subjective or objective or in other words, phenomenological/interpretivist or positivist)?
- What elements (e.g. specific words, sentences, research questions) in the introduction reveal the approach taken by the authors?
- Which research perspective do the author/s in article 2 take in their study (i.e. subjective or objective, phenomenological/interpretivist or positivist)?
- What elements (e.g. specific words, sentences, research questions) in the introduction and research questions sections reveal the approach taken by the authors?
This activity has helped you to distinguish between objective and subjective research by recognising the type of language and the different ways in which objectivists/positivists and subjectivists/interpretivists may formulate their research aims. It should also support the development of your personal preference on objective or subjective research.